The Louvre's spin on art history

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The futuristic-looking National Art Center Tokyo (NACT) seems like a rather unusual venue for an exhibition of mainly 17th- and 18th-century European art sourced from Paris’s famous Louvre Museum. But while the Louvre’s collections are very much rooted in the past, the French institution has also had one eye firmly fixed on the future for a long time. When you visit the Louvre in Paris, modernity is signalled by I. M. Pei’s famous glass pyramid in the courtyard of the museum. Here in Tokyo it is hinted at by the choice of venue for this exhibition, “Louvre Museum: Genre Painting — Scenes from Daily Life.”

Although there is no great avant-garde glass pyramid to pass beneath at NACT, visitors to Kisho Kurokawa’s architectural masterpiece can enjoy something a little similar as they enter the museum through a cone-shaped doorway. In addition to the sleek, modern venue, the theme of the exhibition is also testament to the urge to update the past and make it more accessible to the present and future.

In the period during which the works on display were created, the dominant and most prestigious style of art was “history painting.” This term included all impressive, large-scale pieces that focused on classical, historical, allegorical or biblical themes. In contrast, portraiture and landscape, genre and still-life painting ranked much lower.

History painting had a higher status because it “meant” something, but modern audiences, less familiar with the culture of the past, are a lot less concerned with such meanings. The symbolism of the Roman gods, the lessons of Biblical parables and the arcane messages hidden in allegories seem rather obtuse to this demographic, while a comical picture of a monkey painting — Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin’s “The Monkey Painter” (1739-40), or a little bit of boudoir soft-porn, as in Francois Boucher’s coquettish “L’Odalisque” (1745), have an obvious universal appeal.

Some may see this as dumbing down, others as a natural progression to a more modernist culture. A strong interest in the past nevertheless remains, even though it is often an interest that seeks to find merely modern resonances. This tendency perhaps explains the contemporary popularity of genre painting over history painting from this period, and also why the likes of Jan Vermeer, a painter mainly renowned for painting cosy interiors with a slight melancholy note, is more popular these days than clearly more gifted and prolific painters such as Rembrandt and Rubens.

This exhibition includes one Vermeer, “The Astronomer” (1668), which, of course, is to the forefront of the publicity. The painting sets the tone of the show, while also resonating in interesting ways with modern-day sensibilities.

Like many of the more famous Vermeers, it shows a lone figure in a room, viewed from the side. This creates a mood of relaxed intimacy that appeals to today’s audiences much more than, say, a crucifixion of Christ or a depiction of Dionysus on a chariot pulled by leopards and surrounded by bacchantes and satyrs.

But there is also something even more modern about this Vermeer. Apart from the obvious differences in fashion, it rather evokes a typical Millennial interacting with the Internet.

The key points are that Vermeer’s figure faces a source of light, has a reference book open before him, and has his hand on a revolving globe. Each of these items correlates rather well with the contemporary archetype of the Internet user.

The source of light evokes the glow of a computer screen, the open reference book suggests an open computer tab, while the globe could stand in for both the “world wide web” and the roller ball embedded in the computer mouse of a few years ago, helping him to “navigate.” Most of all, however, it is the subject’s atmosphere of intense individual absorption that seems to powerfully evoke the modern-day computer geek lost in his private world.

In its essence, what this exhibition does is to wrench items and aspects of the past out of their context, separating them from the fuller understanding that would arise from an appraisal of the overarching culture. Images bombard us with an element of non-sequitur surrealism — a man is having a tooth painfully pulled, a woman is pulling cherubs out of a basket, a beggar searches his clothes for lice, a slave is sold in the slave market, and a man poses with a gun and a collection of dead animals.

This too can be compared to the way our modern computer culture works, throwing things together in random and hyperlinked ways, paying little attention to how things relate and are organized.

For this reason, and all the others mentioned, this exhibition could actually be seen as an exhibition of contemporary art — at least from a curatorial point of view.

“Louvre Museum: Genre Painting — Scenes from Daily Life” at the National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till June 1; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,600. Closed Tue. It then moves to the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art.